By Jeremy Rosenberg
Journalists from Neon Tommy won four first-place prizes, five second-place prizes and one third-place prize during the 54th SoCal Journalism Awards. The ceremony took place last night in the Biltmore Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. The prizes were given out by the Los Angeles Press Club.
Catherine Green, Neon Tommy's editor-in-chief, won for best online feature for her piece, “Kneading the System: Mark Stambler’s Cottage Food Crusade.”
"Ms. Green captures the frustrations of small business owners trying to deal with nonsensical regulations. Judges thought this was great work," the official Press Club comments read in part.
James Santelli, Neon Tommy's sports director, won first place in the "Sports Photo" category for, "USC Football: Sun Devils Scorch Trojans 43-22."
"Lively writing, good interweaving of background information, and good pictures taken by the author, especially of the two quarterbacks," read the judges' comments.
Fourteen Neon Tommy writers, editors and photographers were first, second or third place winners – some solo and others as a group.
Four other students – for a grand Neon Tommy total of 18 – had previously been shortlisted as finalists. All in all, Neon Tommy was up for a total of 16 top honors in 13 competition categories. This was twice as many finalist nominations as the student-operated, online news source received last year.
By way of sample comparison, this year the Los Angeles Times – the west's leading daily paper – also received 16 nominations and the LA Weekly – the city's leading alternative weekly paper – received 18.
Three of Neon Tommy's nominations came in the Press Club's "Youth Media" category. The other 13 came in categories otherwise populated by working professionals. Rival publications for these awards included outlets such as the Times, Time magazine, Deadline Hollywood and powerhouse public radio (and Web) behemoths KPCC and KCRW.
"Win or lose, we already won," said Marc Cooper a few days prior to the awards ceremony. Cooper is a School of Journalism associate professor of professional practice and the director of Annenberg Digital News.
"This has given many of our students the distinction of already being nominated as a finalist for a Press Club award," Cooper said. "If they win, it's a 500-foot home run. The nomination is a 380-foot home run."
Launched in 2009, Neon Tommy is the online news source sponsored by USC Annenberg through Annenberg Digital News. The site is designed and managed as a professional site, not simply as a student new outlet.
Earlier this month, Cooper was invited to deliver a keynote address at a conference of university website advisors from across the country. Cooper said that many other attendees were pointing to what they rightly considered significant milestones – such as their students' stories being referenced, referred to or even picked up by the mainstream media.
"At Neon Tommy we would also see that as positive, and we do all of that," Cooper said. "But we think it is more distinctive that we should also compete with those mainstream outlets."
Added Cooper: "It's not a mater of chest-thumping, but from a strict sort of pedagogical / practical point of view, what could be better for a journalism student than to graduate already having won awards for his or her journalism in competition with professional news organizations?"
Cooper said he was proud of all the nominees and nominations; he also indicated he was particularly pleased by the six different feature writing nominations Neon Tommy received, including for a pair of series, "Faces of the Jobless" and "Classroom Frontlines."
"This is a very high form of journalism," Cooper said of features writing. "It involves style. It involves storytelling. It involves news reporting. You need to do a lot of things well to be nominated."
"Classroom Frontlines" won second place last night in its category. Andrew McIntyre, Kate Rooney, Mary Slosson, Reut Cohen and Benjamin Gottlieb shared the nomination and award.
Gottlieb led the way among Neon Tommy nominees. The former Neon Tommy executive editor who is now a multiplatform producer at The Washington Post received five total nominations – one solo and four group nods. His awards night ended with one shared first and two shared second place honors.
That shared first, in the Youth Media Broadcast category, was with Arezou Rezvani for the duo's "Eye on the Middle East Podcast." Rezvani works now as an NPR National News Desk Assistant.
Tracy Bloom, who now works at Truthdig and was previously Neon Tommy's deputy editor, earned three nominations – including two solo nods. Bloom went three-for-three; her honors included taking home a third place prize in the professional competition and a first-place win for best blog in the Youth Media derby. Judges saluted the blog's "sass and wit."